Creating a Healing Garden - Part 1 by Alex Stark

Copyright 2004 and all rights reserved,

The following set of guidelines outlines basic considerations for the design and evaluation of Healing Gardens and other Outdoor Healing Environments. These are to be taken only as a guide, as the practice of Feng Shui involves many analytical tools which are beyond the scope of this document. For optimal results, always consult with a professional practitioner.

Clicking below will reveal to you the first sets of guidelines, which include:

Parts 2 & 3 will appear in future articles, and will include:


  1. Nature does not depend on gardens. Humans, on the other hand, can use gardens to bring us closer to the nurturing and healing power of Nature.
  2. All creation and transformation requires a container. A garden is a sacred enclosure where the healing and recuperative process can unfold.
  3. A successful healing garden requires that its users and creators relinquish control to the forces of Nature. This includes relinquishing control over gardening theories, educational ideas, technological shortcuts, hybrid forms, fertilizers, and, more importantly, our own expectations.
  4. A healing garden is a link to the divine, to the creative force of the Cosmos. It is therefore beyond horticultural techniques and intellectual preoccupations and should reflect this role in its attitude of compassion and care.
  5. A healing garden is a microcosmos of the larger world: each feature in the garden has the power to represent a larger feature in the landscape: mountains, rivers, lakes. It is through this holistic modeling that a healing garden can stimulate the senses, improve immune response, and promote recuperation from physical and emotional illness.
  6. A successful healing garden is a co-creative process in which humans and Nature are intimately connected through the bonds of reciprocity and stewardship. A healing gardener is a keeper of a sacred place. Its users can access higher levels of spiritual power by their simple presence in its space.
  7. A healing garden is a symbol of the possibilities, obstacles, and hardships that need to be overcome in order to reach higher levels of consciousness and a sense of our own divinity. This potential allows a successful garden to have a healing role even in those situations where physical healing is not possible.
  8. A healing garden needs to work with Nature and its forms: it should discourage rigidity, conceptual thinking, and preconceived notions of design. Its design needs to avoid straight lines, seer volumes and planes, and excessive use of symmetry.
  9. The design of a healing garden must consider creation in its three forms: aesthetic, spiritual, and social.
  10. Aesthetic creation can be achieved through artful manipulation of physical elements, color, light, tone, and feeling. It is a result of careful compositional skills and must recognize the polarities present in nature. Aesthetic creation runs the spectrum from formal to wild, and each version will serve a specific purpose, illness, or person.
  11. Spiritual creation is achieved through careful alignment with the forces of earth, water, air and fire. It implies a recognition of orientation in space in a cosmological sense, and of the anthropocosmic relationship between man and the larger body of the planet, its creatures, and the invisible forces behind material reality. It can also include formal religious allusions as well as iconographic additions. Its end product is a space where many activities are possible: stillness/movement, contemplation/interaction, wonder/discovery, mystery/creation, relaxation/work.
  12. Social creation includes the interaction of patients with healers, family and friends, the old with the young, staff and colleagues, and even the act of being in solitude. In all cases, however, there is also the interaction of humans and nature: plants, wildlife, and the forces of wind, water, light, and color.


A healing garden, by the very nature of its function, ethically obligates its designer to subordinate his personal tastes to the task of creating a user-centered, supportive environment for healing.

  1. A healing garden should afford opportunities to make choices: private areas and public spaces, contemplation and people watching, various walking routes, different kinds of seating, interaction with nature, and more.
  2. A healing garden should allow users to experience a sense of control: users must know it exists, how to gain access to it, they should be able to use it in ways they prefer, and be involved in its design and maintenance.
  3. A healing garden should create opportunities that encourage people to gather together in order to experience social contact and support. The garden needs to provide subspaces and seating arrangements that allow gathering in larger groups. It needs natural, spatially enclosed settings for talk and conversation.
  4. A healing garden should also create opportunities for smaller interactions: one-on-one conversation or quiet contemplation.
  5. Design needs to create opportunities for movement and exercise; this brings physical and emotional benefits and helps to combat depression. Create paths for walking, make the garden visible from corridors that can also be used for exercise, place rehabilitation units in view of the garden or nature, add a walking or jogging route for staff. Remember to allow spaces for well-children to let off steam and interact with adults.
  6. Design should encourage clarity of layout and movement. Avoid dead end paths and complex formations.
  7. If possible, the garden should be clearly visible from many locations: allow views of the garden from lobbies, corridors, staff or patient rooms. Provide way-finding signage.
  8. It should provide easy accessibility: place nurse stations with view and access to the garden. Make sure width and materials of the pathways, stairs and lifts are usable by people with infirmities and on wheel chairs.
  9. Design should create a sense of psychological security by providing a sense of enclosure and protection from otherÕs view (fishbowl effect). Sitting areas should enjoy protection from the back. Avoid sitting areas in the open without spatial relief. Allow for the possibility of napping or laying on the grass.
  10. It should create a sense of physical security: provide handrails, non-skid surfaces, pavement that does not create glare. Provide sitting areas at frequent intervals, especially near the entry point.
  11. Design should provide physiological comfort: consider patientÕs special needs. Create options of sun or shade, protection from breezes, and seating that allows rising from the sitting position. Provide garden seats with backs and arms. Consider smoking needs of staff or other patients.
  12. A garden should create a sense of quiet and calm. Users should be able to hear birdsong, chimes and water. Control disturbances caused by road traffic, air conditioning, delivery vehicles and helicopter pads. The one exception are the well-elderly who often prefer interaction in "front porch" locations with more noise.
  13. Design must recognize the need for familiarity in furnishings, images, symbols and plant life. Familiarity helps to soothe and calm otherwise weary individuals.
  14. Design needs to provide unambiguously positive features. Avoid abstractions, aggressive shapes, pointed or angular forms. Avoid long straight lines, overwhelming volumes or masses. Think small, rounded, and natural.
  15. Design needs to encourage interaction with Nature: promote safe wildlife, bio diversity, and a sense of mystery.


Healing gardens are by definition sacred places where its users leave their worries behind. The entrance defines the boundary of the garden enclosure. A special entrance creates a safe haven and intensifies the experience of healing. It is where the garden befriends you, allowing you to enter. It also engages the imagination and allows the visitor to perceive the subtleties of what lies beyond.

  1. The enclosure can be formal or implied, but it must demonstrate a sense of structure, permanence and groundedness. Simplicity is important.
  2. Where fencing is used it should be as natural as possible in order to differentiate it from the rest of the hospital. Structural walls need to be softened with plantings, trellises, artwork, or water features.
  3. Archways are effective ways of creating transitions. These can be formal or natural, and are opportunities for displaying the name of the garden or a special healing message.
  4. Gates can be made strong and solid or light and permeable, depending on the population served. In either case a gateway, like an archway, signals that the visitor is entering sacred ground and leaving worries behind.
  5. The entrance to a garden should be ordered and should allow for views into the garden without disarray or clutter. Equipment and technology should be removed or concealed from view.
  6. The entry should have a clear view of a focal point or an anchor feature such as a rock, a significant tree or plant grouping, a water feature, an informative sign or graphic, or a work of art.
  7. Not all of the garden should be visible from the entrance. This diminishes the allure and mystery of the rest and minimizes the sense of discovery and privacy that is possible otherwise. The gardenÕs features should be revealed one at a time.
  8. However, in certain cases where patients may be cognitively impaired, it may be best to show the entirety of the garden at one glance. Alzheimer's disease patients, for example, need to have clearly defined paths and looped trajectories that lead safely back to the main building.
  9. It is desirable to have the garden visible from the interior of the hospital building. This creates a sense of anticipation and also benefits those who are not able to use the garden directly. Care should be taken, however, not to create a "fishbowl effect" and compromise the privacy of the outdoor areas.
  10. The entry should provide sitting opportunities for taking in the garden and for those who are less firm.
  11. There might be need to provide additional entrances for staff or visitors. In certain cases, such as in hospice facilities, there may be need to secure access to the garden only for those directly in need.
  12. Color is an important way to entice the visitor into the garden. Plantings should be considered with this in mind. The play of light is also part of this display of nature and can be incorporated into its design. Bright color can increase light in a dark area and vice versa.
  13. Pathways leading into the garden from the entrance have the potential of creating intrigue and mystery. It is best if paths are meandering and sinuous. In a small garden meandering paths make it feel larger, more spacious and relaxed.


The pathways within the garden are representative of the personal healing journey. They have the power to create a sense of mystery, allure, achievement, or even simple familiarity. Each populationÕs differing needs can be met most effectively through the experiences encountered in this journey.

  1. Walkways need to be considered with particular populations in mind. What will serve the well-elderly may not be suitable for Alzheimer patients; a childrenÕs garden will require a radically different design from that of a hospice or sanatorium. It is important, therefore, for the design team to carefully assess the needs and characteristics of their demographics and to elaborate programs that work in concert with those needs.
  2. The width of pathways is a critical consideration. Whereas it is ideal to keep paths small and narrow, certain populations may require greater clearances. It may be desirable, for example, to allow access to patients in beds as part of their therapy in the garden. Wheelchairs and strollers, similarly, will also dictate other widths. Wheel chairs will similarly dictate permissible inclines and ramp profiles.
  3. Pathways need to consider not only the physical restrictions mentioned above, but also any psychological needs. Closed loops, for example, are desirable in populations that are cognitively impaired (such as Alzheimer), as dead ends present serious problems for this population. Children, on the other hand, take great pleasure in gardens that have hidden or "secret" places, and multi-layered spatial planes.
  4. Physical security should always be considered in pathway design: wheel stops for wheel chairs, railings for water features (even the most shallow can present a danger to the infirm), and potential injury due to slipping, sliding or changes in level. Protect sitting areas from excessive wind.
  5. In all cases, however, seating plays a fundamental role. Seating allows the journey to be broken into manageable segments, provides opportunity for contemplation, and helps to create anchor points or focal groupings that can lend the garden an air of wonder and enchantment.
  6. In general terms, it is best if paths are meandering and sinuous. In a small garden meandering paths make it feel larger, more spacious and relaxed. Meandering paths also help to create a sense of intimacy and calm and are very helpful in reducing stress.
  7. Straight paths can be concealed with stepping stones, different paving textures, or changes of level. Allow plantings to creep into the pathways.
  8. It is best if movement through paths can provide a variety of open and closed views. Allow for experience of differing subspaces, anchor points, special features, and other uses.
  9. Wherever possible, allow for a series of entrances into contiguous subspaces that create levels of discovery, attainment, and healing. This can be achieved by creating the garden as a series of "rooms" or experiences.
  10. Include elements of surprise and whimsy. Provide variety in color, texture, size and massing.
  11. Add a chapel, pavilion, or some other enclosure to provide a destination. Provide shelter where needed. Special themes can create wonderful destinations: consider giant chess or checkers, mini golf, or even iconic structures such as gazebos, basketball hoops, bird houses, or clothes lines.
  12. Include the influence of wind by adding wind chimes, flags, windmills, banners, or tall grasses that can sway even in light breezes. Encourage melodic natural sounds. Consider sound sculptures.
  13. Do not forget the power of smell: create scented environments by artful planting of flowering varieties.


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